Washington Supreme Court pauses on rule that would close juvenile court records to public | Crime and courts

For now, Washington state juvenile court records are open to the public.

The Washington Supreme Court has suspended a rule that went into effect on Tuesday removing juvenile court records from online court records systems and requiring minors to be identified only by their initials and dates of birth in court documents.

Now a coalition of prosecutors, clerks, police, journalists and open government advocates hope to work with the High Court on a system that maintains the openness of the justice system mandated by the Constitution, with the understanding that juvenile offenders deserve the possibility of reform. and put past crimes behind them.

“It buys us time,” said Yakima County District Attorney Joe Brusic, who serves on the Washington Association of Attorneys’ Court Information System Committee. “It gives us the opportunity to breathe.”

Yakima county attorney Joe Brusic

Opponents of the rule argue that restricting information may harm those the high court seeks to protect by making the court system less accessible and opening the door to possible mistaken identity, as well as making it difficult to see if the courts administer justice in a fair manner.

Currently, state law allows public access to juvenile court records through the Odyssey online records system, as well as in person at courthouses. The law allows the records of minors to be sealed if several conditions are met, such as the minor reaches the age of 18 or completes probation and has not committed a drug, sex, or drug-related offense. serious” such as first degree robbery or murder.

The state’s Office of Public Defense and the Minorities and Justice Commission have called for changes to state court rules to restrict access to juvenile criminal records. These groups have argued that the accessibility of juvenile court records makes it difficult for an offender to obtain housing, employment or further education, particularly if the records are retrieved by websites that offer background checks. people.

Public defenders for the state and the commission have argued that these consequences fall more heavily on minority youth because they are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system.

The rule, approved by eight of the courts’ nine judges, would prohibit listing juvenile court records on court-run online record systems such as Odyssey. They would only be accessible to people who went to the county courthouse where the case was pending.

It also required that minor defendants be identified by their initials and date of birth rather than their full names. The judges described the situation as an “emergency” due to the injuries.

The rule, which the court approved on March 31, went into effect on May 3, with some jurisdictions suppressing records. Brusic said not everyone was consulted beforehand.

“They hadn’t spoken to prosecutors or clerks, who were going to have to put this rule in place,” Brusic said.

Yakima County Juvenile Justice Center

FILE – Yakima County Juvenile Justice Center.


The only comments received during a comment period before the rule was passed came from public defenders and justice reform groups favoring the change, with the Washington Association of County Clerks opposing it.

The Clerks’ Association said supporters of the change were seeking the court to change the rule because their previous efforts to change it through legislation had repeatedly failed.

Clerks said requiring people to go to a courthouse to even see the index of cases in juvenile court was a bad idea as it would deny access to people who could not afford to. go to the courthouse or who were physically unable to do so. therefore due to a disability.

Identifying juvenile defendants by their initials would hamper the functions of court clerks by allowing them to identify them in other matters before the court, such as family law cases.

“Court records are not just about an offender’s alleged actions – they are also an official court record of the decisions of government officials, including law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, county clerks, etc. . and should not be impossible to access,” Kimberly A. Allen, the president of the clerks association, wrote in her letter.

She also pointed out that there are already mechanisms in place to seal the records of minors and that once sealed, the records become completely inaccessible.

Once the court approved the rule, a coalition quickly formed and pushed the court to delay implementing the rule until further discussions took place.

Joined clerk and prosecutor associations Superior Court Judges Association, District and Municipal Court Judges Association, Washington Association of Juvenile Court Administrators, Washington State Patrol, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington. , the Washington State Association of Broadcasters and the Association of Washington Newspaper Editors.

The coalition has urged the High Court to delay implementation of the rule to ensure all parties can intervene.

Brusic said public access to juvenile court is important in Yakima County, where there are a significant number of juvenile cases — particularly violent crimes such as shootings and drive-by homicides — and that names should be used in the court system as a matter of public safety and accountability.

“It’s not kids stealing a shirt at Macy’s,” Brusic said.

Yakima County averaged about 320 juvenile trials per year between 2018 and 2021, according to court records.

Rowland Thompson, executive director of the Allied Daily Newspapers, said the rules went against the state Constitution’s guarantee that justice would be administered openly.

Most minor cases go through diversion, where if a defendant complies with certain conditions, the charge is dropped, Thompson said, but making sure the system is open to the public is especially important. when a minor is tried.

“When a juvenile offender is before a judge and some sort of judgment (juvenile court term for sentencing) takes place for their offense, it becomes part of the public record,” Thompson said. “It’s important for the media that we can see that these people are being treated fairly, that race doesn’t play a role in it, and that they are being treated equally across the state.”

If the records are not public, Thompson said, it would be impossible to know whether the justice system is dealing with issues of fairness.

In addition, there is a public safety problem. Police need to know if the person they pulled over for a traffic violation has a history of violent crime — information that might not be available if minor records are restricted, Thompson said. Likewise, there are jobs that people with certain beliefs cannot work at.

Brusic and Thompson said they weren’t opposed to a minor who reformed not being haunted by past criminal convictions, but that must be balanced with the need for transparency in the justice system.

New order, dissent issued

And there seem to be questions within the Temple of Justice at Olympia about how the rule was suspended and, presumably, what will happen in the future.

On Thursday, Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez issued an order “delaying” implementation pending a further court order. But the next day, Justice Barbara Madsen wrote a dissent to the order, signed by Justices Charles W. Johnson, Susan Owens, Debra L. Stephens and G. Helen Whitener stating the rule was “suspended” and referred to committee. rules. .

Brusic said he is still trying to analyze what the competing orders mean and whether a dissent signed by a majority of the court overturns the chief justice’s decision, but he said the important thing is that groups opposed to the rule will have a chance to make their case.

{span style=”background-color: #deffde;”}The {/span}Washington Coalition for Open Government said the court was right to suspend the rule, but said the judges owe the public a “fuller explanation “about what had happened. triggered a dissenting order.

“The proposed rule would have plunged Washington state’s juvenile justice system into anonymity and severely limited public access to its information,” said WACOG Secretary George Erb.

Transparency promotes trust in the justice system, Erb said, and in addition to working with other parties to find a way to keep juvenile cases open, judges should also explain competing orders.

“Confusing people is no way to gain public trust,” Erb said.

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